There was this small organic farm I worked at in New Mexico when I was still living the transient life, a dreamlike place tucked into a warm valley along the Rio Grande River. The farmers had herds of turkeys and giant sheep dogs, big shady cottonwoods at the edges of fields of tomatoes and eggplant and lots and lots of peppers. Everything there verged on the wild: unruly crops just out-competing the weeds, bull snakes dangling from cottonwood branches. The crew was sunburned and disheveled, living in odd trailers and abandoned campers around the property. DEA helicopters flew low over our heads looking for patches of weed. It was beautiful, inspiring and such a fun diversion for a 23-year-old.
Amidst that tangled mass of green and mosquitoes lots of hard work and real farming got done, with tractors and muscle and sheer determination. Greenhouses were tended, crops were planted and cultivated, and produce was harvested to truck to farmers markets. The farmers were creative and adventurous, risking possible crop failure in order to try a new irrigation system or losing several turkeys to predators in the effort to rig a secure moveable coop.
An idea that seemed as though it might fall on the experimental and possibly ill-conceived side that summer was using cover crops to build soil fertility instead of adding compost or manure or other such inputs. The farmers planted fallow fields with a mix of clover and buckwheat, tilling it in just as it flowered. I liked the thought of it – growing your fertilizer instead of bringing in dump loads from some outside source sounded closer to the roots of organic farming. But it seemed like too simple of a remedy to the constant need for crop nutrition. Was it possible to really grow good soil?
Since those transient days and early introduction to cover crops, I’ve kept a keen interest in this idea of growing fertilizer instead of bringing it in from an outside source, organic or conventional as it may be. I kept an eye out for patches of cover crops at other farms where I worked, always querying the farmer about what he or she was growing and to what end. And as soon as I had a farm field to call my own, I started experimenting with mixes, planting in the fall for overwintering and mid-summer for a quick organic matter fix.
What I learned from all those years with an eye on cover crops has made me a total devotee. I saw my own soil texture go from something near clay to a lovely crumbly loam. I saw my crops gain vigor and resistance. I learned about the benefits of planting a mix of species, each one providing a different benefit to the soil at a different time in the season. I learned that cover crops can attract beneficial insects and crowd out weeds, protect water quality and hold soil moisture, break up compact soils and improve crop yields.
All this from planting a stand of non-edible plants and simply tilling it in just as it flowers. All the work takes place as it breaks down in your soil, adding nutrients and building organic matter, improving your soil with every cover crop rotation. It may seem a bit too good to be true or a peculiar experiment that somehow just works, a bit of New Mexico mad-farming adventure that I’ve kept with me because the results are real.
As with all things in farming and gardening, the proof is in the planting and I invite you to give it a try… the cover crop mixes we’ve developed for our Home + Range line will benefit your garden soil with an array of healthy outcomes, including suppressing weeds and building up soil nutrients. Join us in cover crop appreciation… let’s all plant patch for healthy soil.
Coming soon… more posts about the what, where and why’s of cover crops, including what went into developing our mixes. Really, can we say enough?